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Catching up

STOCKHOLM — After a year of hosting ASEAN meetings culminating in the summits among regional leaders and with dialogue partners, the Philippines should be attracting more foreign direct investments and tourists.

Those are supposed to be among the dividends of hosting international gatherings, with preparatory meetings held the entire year.

Hosting a global event such as the Olympic Games or the World Cup means a nation – particularly the city chosen for the event – can compete with the best in the world. It’s a coming-out party, and in many host cities, the improvements undertaken to make the party a success become permanent: better roads, mass transport facilities and telecommunications services; cleaner, greener surroundings; more professional services.

This was the case when China hosted the Olympics in Beijing and the World Expo in Shanghai. There has been no turning back from being world-class.

The idea is not just to serve as gracious host, but to make the experience so memorable guests will keep coming back, and invite others to do the same. While taxpayers always gripe about the massive price tag for hosting any international event, the long-term return on investment must be so attractive that most countries that have already hosted events such as the Olympics keep vying for more chances to host them again.

The mark of an advanced economy is when it can host such events at the shortest notice, with minimal improvements required. Paris can host any global event with its eyes closed; so can New York, Tokyo and Geneva.

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We’re still waiting for a chance to host our international coming-out party, prudently limiting ourselves to regional events. The rotating chairmanships of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum have provided good practice in hosting world leaders and organizing supporting meetings throughout the year.

Unfortunately, many of the improvements for these events are as ephemeral as the trimming of the greenery along Roxas Boulevard for the recent ASEAN summit. And even if ministerial meetings in preparation for the summits are held around the country throughout the year, it doesn’t seem to help us catch up with our neighbors in many areas such as tourist arrivals, foreign direct investment and overall prosperity.

Here we are, one of the five founding members of ASEAN, and we’re trailing much of the rest of the region in several human development indicators. Never mind oil-rich Brunei; why are we now lagging behind Vietnam?

Last month, Alibaba Group’s Jack Ma came visiting, and was remembered for noting that our internet is “no good.”

How can we expect return business when even internet service, now one of the most basic human needs, is spotty? The service improved around the ASEAN venues during the summit and related meetings, but now it’s back to its “not good” quality. As I wrote, the improvements from hosting events are not sustained.

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I’m in this lovely Swedish capital for an international sustainability forum. Before I left Manila, Sweden’s Ambassador Harald Fries told me that 27,000 of his compatriots visited the Philippines last year. I asked: and how many Swedes visited Thailand? Fifteen times more, he replied. Bilateral trade is also “too low,” he said ruefully, as he promised to work on improving the situation.

Air connectivity would help, the ambassador said. I had to stop over in Taipei and then enter the Schengen zone through Amsterdam before the final hop to this city. Bangkok, on the other hand, has direct flights to all the major European cities, just like the other top ASEAN travel destinations, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

We already suffer from the quality of our airports when compared with the gateways of several of our neighbors. Executives of about six Swedish companies are holding a joint seminar in Manila with representatives of the Department of Transportation and the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines to discuss safety and efficiency of airports. 

We’re now too far behind some of our neighbors in terms of airport facilities, but maybe we can end those chronic flight delays and improve air conditioning at the NAIA. 

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At least the airport now has free wi-fi. Mon Isberto of Smart Communications told me that the company is gradually replacing its copper wires with fiber optic cables, which make internet speed 10 times faster. Optical fiber also works best with 4G LTE.

Smart has also started installing smaller cell sites to dispel health concerns over telecommunications signals, although smaller sites also mean weaker service.

Copper was a compromise technology, Mon said. The speed of replacing copper wiring depends on the support and efficiency of the local governments. Last year Cebu’s Toledo City became the first completely fiber optic service area for Smart; the latest is Naga City.

Transformation is slow. Mon said installing one cell site, from processing of documents to completion of the project, requires an average of 36 permits from the national and local governments, the barangay and homeowners’ association. The entire process could take up to a year, after which Smart must secure a separate set of permits for transmission.

Mon says other countries consider internet service as a public utility that qualifies for fast-track processing. This is not the case here. The result is the kind of service that, when visitors compare with those in much of the region, becomes another disincentive to visiting the Philippines.

Internet speed is on my mind because Sweden happens to rank third after South Korea and Norway in having the fastest internet on the planet. As rated by Akamai in the first quarter of this year, Swedish internet speed is 22.5 Mbps for fixed broadband, way above the global average of 7.2 Mbps. Hong Kong ranked fourth, Singapore seventh and Japan eighth. 

The Philippines’ average internet speed was 5.5 Mbps as of the first quarter. We’re way behind Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

We have a lot of catching up to do, and the task keeps getting more challenging as our neighbors do better.

 

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